Reflections of a ModemJunkie

May, 1999

Quitting Comdex Cold Turkey

by Leonard Grossman

I did it. After years of slavish obedience to the new, the latest, the hype and the future. I skipped Comdex this year.

Don't get the wrong idea. After all these years, I didn't discover some new reserve of willpower. I didn't turn my nose to the heavens in disdain. No. Indeed, when I got the first of dozens of notifications of this rite of Spring, I went online and registered. Weeks ago, I received my plastic ID card placed it above my desk, so I could grab it and run off to the concrete palaces on the lake.

But the exigencies of the real world conspired to free me from my chains. For years I have had to convince my employer that I needed to research the latest for the benefit of the office. In some years, I actually had to use annual leave ("vacation days" to you who don't feed at the public trough), but every year, I was somehow able to find a few hours, or even a whole day to immerse my self in the newest of the new. For the ultimate experience see my archived column, Comdex in a Day.

But this year I am involved in major litigation. I spent two days that week in a hog butchering plant in central Illinois, covering the end of one shift at 1:30 a.m. and then back again for the start of the day shift at 5:00 a.m and so forth. And then two days in the Seat of Wisdom (Our Nation's Capitol) for discussions of Great Importance, I am sure. There was just no way to squeeze a minute for Comdex, much less Windows World.

Many years ago, when I was studying for the Bar Exam, I used to swim a mile each day in Lake Michigan. I swam a slow, relaxed, breast stroke. It was for my head not my body. One day as I swam along the rocks, a quarter mile out, a powerful swimmer plowed the waves toward me. He wore a bathing cap, and goggles for all I know he could have been greased for speed and against the cold. He looked up:

"Want to race?" he shouted above the noise of the city and the wind.

"No," I responded.

"Thank God!" he replied and resumed his swim.

He really didn't want to race but felt obliged to make the challenge.

I think I felt that way about having to miss Comdex this year. I was relieved. The excitement was gone years ago. Perhaps my peak experience was in 1996. Still, when the announcement came this year I had felt compelled to go, even though it has long become an increasing physical and psychic challenge with fewer and fewer rewards.

The best thing last year was meeting members of my PC Users Group and a few others at the end of the day and feasting in China Town, which is only a few blocks from McCormick Place. That had become an annual tradition. I was sorry to miss that this year.

But thinking about last years gathering brings a sense of deja preview. Even last year it was strange. We went to a great restaurant ( a hole in the wall with a table for nine) and had a feast. But after a long day sampling the newest of the new, no one discussed anything they had seen all day. Until I mentioned the odd silence, you would have thought we had not spent the day in a common pursuit.

Not that we were silent. This was an animated group, some of whom went back to the days of the KayPro and the Osborne and before. But nothing that day had excited us. When I brought up the subject we did have a few favorites.

We liked the new thin, flat, screens, but none of us could remotely imagine shelling out the money. Nor could we imagine anyone who could justify them in our employment worlds. The highlights had been the Video Toaster and, above all, the Sony Digital Camera exhibit on the way in. It was fun posing while the demo people snapped pictures and gave us the floppies Indeed, we all thought the highlight would be getting home and looking at the digital images.

Perhaps it was symbolic. When I got home and opened the image there was a dark blob in front of an underexposed image of the Sony booth. Fortunately, I had LView Pro on my machine. I played with the image, lightening it enough to recognize myself. But it was unusable for any purpose. Like so much hype. Like so much promise.

Aside from those few things, the general feeling was that the show had been a bore. Years ago there was a need for two shows, Comdex and Windows World, but by last year it was clear it was all one event -- Microsoft Madness -- even if the show is still divided into two sections. Few competitors really bothered to show up. Those that did were now "Microsoft Partners." Gone were the huge pavilions of the major software companies. We even became nostalgic for the huge, sexist stage show put on by Computer Associates. (Of course, that nostalgia is entirely professional, I really don't miss the scantily dressed dancers, just the sense of competition.) CA is still the second largest software manufacture, but who ever even thinks of them. Those thoughts were the highlight of Comdex last year already.

So this year, it was with less sadness than expected that I missed the show . Instead I had lunch one day above a bowling alley overlooking the Illinois River and on the day of the NATO Anniversary, after the end of my IMPORTANT MEETING, I walked the unexpectedly quiet streets of Washington and visited the Sergeant Exhibit at the National Gallery. There are compensations for my devotion to my country.

I returned to Chicago to find the monthly newsletter of NICOL, the computer user group which I have served as president for several years. The first thing I noted was the headline. "COMDEX Disappoints." The first thing stressed was that afterwards several members went to the Evergreen in Chinatown and had the "Banquet for 8". Let me quote from the article, written by James Smith.:

The general consensus [over dinner] was that the show was becoming smaller and less interesting. I can remember going to the show when the 486 was announced as the successor to the 386, Halls on both sides of Lake Shore Drive were packed tight and there were many interesting products on display. You needed a whole day just to skim through. Coming a second day was conceivable. [Sometimes, mandatory. Ed. note.] Now it takes up less than one hall and much of that is devoted to consulting qua employment firms. Some of us vowed either to skip the show altogether next year or limit our attendance to half a day. A visit to Chinatown will stay on the schedule. [Emphasis added.]

The article did note a few things of interest, especially The Orb by Castlewood, a new disk drive from original deveoper of SyQuest. There was also a focus on security. But, once again, Jim noted, "Microsoft dominated the whole place with nonstop demonstrations of their new products. Practically no one else was displaying software." Storage?? Security. Is that where it's at?

Perhaps it is not the producers of Comdex who are at fault. The industry is in a period of consolidation. In spite of the incredible increases in power and speed, not much is new in the way we use computers. And what is new has been hyped so far ahead of time that when it arrives it seems old hat, already.

Perhaps the real news is the dramatic increase in the number of people who use what is already out there and in their lack of interest in how it works. Perhaps computers are becoming toasters. All users want is not to get burned. Hot pads and toast tongs don't make exciting shows. (Of course, the annual Housewares Show in Chicago is the hottest ticket in town each year but that is another story. And it isn't toast tongs that draw the crowds there, either.

In any event, it looks like by staying away, I am once again on the cutting edge even ahead of the pack. (And I have just discovered a good Chinese restaurant in my own neighborhood.)

I wonder what good excuse I can find to skip the show again next year.

Coming soon: The ModemJunkie Discovers Plugins. After years of resistance, the ModemJunkie yields to the demands of sites requiring plugins and loads his hard drive with Java, RealPlayer, QuickTime, Shockwave and more. Was it worth it? See you next time. (How's that for hype?)

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Copyright 1999 Leonard Grossman

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